The World Can Wait

I wake to the sound of birds singing in the trees outside our window. Already the sun is spilling a pink glow over the rim of the world, its soft light diffusing into the bedroom. She lies with her back to me, her stillness broken only by the soft sounds of her breathing. I snuggle closer, taking great care not to wake her. Slipping my arm over her I feel her warmth as it begins to fill me.

This is not a special day. Just one more morning in a lifetimes worth of mornings. Responsibilities await, and soon the day will be upon us with it’s relentless distractions, but for this moment nothing else matters. There is just her and I and the sounds of birds, as I feel the slow rising and falling of her breath. Laying my head beside hers on the pillow I smell her reassuring scent, and close my eyes. Drifting into the borderlands of sleep my mind let’s go of all attachment to this world, and I am floating, rising slowly aloft on the wings of dream.

Some men will spend their lives in pursuit of wealth, glory, power, or fame. I will not be one of them. Like the birds that sing in the trees I have discovered the secret of life, and this morning she is sleeping within these arms.

Sweet Home

There are two kinds of vacations. The kind where you relax, and the kind where you try to pack as much fun into your days as is physically, and emotionally possible. This was one of the latter.

As I mentioned before, we spent the past week in Chicago on spring break. Of all of the cities I have been to around the U.S., heck around the world, Chicago is definitely Top Five. It has the heft and solidity of a real city, and all the diversity of things to do and see that you expect in a gargantuan city of its size. Every time I visit, I experience a different side of the place. I worked there for a brief spell in the early 90’s, and saw the place through the eyes of a 20 something, awed and intimidated by the immensity of it. I’ve been back on several occasions in the years since then, and each time the city that I experience is different. Mrs. 20 Prospect and I spent a weekend there for our 10th anniversary, as the White Sox were celebrating their World Series victory. This visit with the kidlins was for the full on family experience.


We stayed in a Holiday Inn Express in one of the closer in suburbs, and used the CTA to get around, something that didn’t intimidate me as near as much as it probably should have. I guess after all of the subways I have ridden around the world, the CTA just didn’t seem that bad. Still wouldn’t ride the red line through the south side at 10 pm though. In 5 days we managed the Brookfield Zoo, The Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, Shedd Aquarium, Navy Pier, and even threw in the Adler Planetarium for good measure on the last day before we drove home. Chicago did its part to give us the full on weather experience. Sunny and 75 one day, raining and 40 degrees the next. Wind, cold, thunderstorms, and finally sun and blue skies again. It’s a city of many moods.

Engine 999

As much as we enjoyed it, Chicago is not really the kind of place that Mrs. 20 Prospect, and the kids enjoy. Too big, and brawling, and Carl Sandburgish. A nice place to visit, but not one in which they could ever imagine living. I’m not sure when I’ll make it back there, but it will probably not be with the family. My next visit will most likely be one of those “guy-cations” where I visit with friends to take in some ball games, and sample the local beer. I’ve been to Wrigley back in the 90’s, when the salesman used to give us the company’s tickets whenever they weren’t entertaining customers. The Cubs were still the choice of yuppies at the time, although the games hadn’t taken on the trendiness that seems to have taken root. I was always more of a Whitey’s fan anyway when I was growing up. For no good reason, other than Pudge was catching for them, Greg “the Bull” Luzinski was crushing homers, and they had the most melodiously named pitcher ever to play the game of baseball in Salome Barojas. I could say that name all day. Sadly, Comiskey Park was history by the time I got there in 1991, so I never got a chance to experience it. I still haven’t been to the “new” Comiskey yet. Can’t say it looks very inviting, although the neighborhood is a little better than it was back in the 90’s. The one day I had free tickets lined up, it was 90 degrees and there was an air quality alert. Didn’t really relish the thought of sitting in the upper deck sweltering in a cloud of smog.

So goodbye Chicago, and hello Minneapolis-St. Paul a place much more humanly scaled. Where the taxes are high, the schools are good, and the streets are clean. It’s America’s most Canadian city!
But I won’t be home for too long before I have to take to the road again. I leave tomorrow morning for Philadelphia. Where the taxes are high, the schools are horrible, and the streets are a war zone. America’s least Canadian city! My Dark Corporate overlords have a manufacturing plant outside of Philly, and I am going there for a few days of meetings. More travel, more time for reflection. I learned long ago that the farther away from home I get, the more I come to understand it, and appreciate it. As much as it pains me to admit it, I probably do need to keep on traveling for my job if I am ever going to keep what little sanity I have left. Time and distance are constant reminders that I am still alive.

Wrigley at the Golden Hour 1991

City of Big Shoulders

The 20 Prospect Clan is on vacation in the Windy City all week, so there will be no stories posted. Don’t despair though, I will be presenting a different image of Chicago every day. See you next week.

Buckingham Fountain - WPA Poster from Library of Congress

CHICAGO – by Carl Sandburg

HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

Engine Engine Number Nine, going down Chicago line…

When I was a kid I would lie awake in bed at night, waiting for sleep to come, listening to the cry of locomotives crying out in the dark, against the low thrum of the diesel engines. I loved trains, and wanted nothing more than to be blasting through the darkness in the cab of a locomotive watching the moonlight shining on the rails in front of me.

Dad used to drive me over to the freight station on Lehigh Ave. where we would park and wait for the trains to go by. I think he secretly enjoyed them as much as I did. The old New York Central mainline, which once ran right through the heart of Batavia, had long since been re-routed south of town, but it still carried a lot of traffic, and it never took long for a Conrail freight to come drumming past. Passenger trains were a rare sight in the early 1970’s, and seeing one was always a thrill.

It wasn’t always that way though. Once the greatest passenger trains in all the world ran right through the bustling heart of Batavia. The Empire State Express, and the 20th Century Limited carried celebrities and captains of industry through our town. We even played a small walk on role in one of railroading’s  greatest triumphs.

Engine 999

This humble little locomotive was once world famous. Engine 999, which was to be known at the Empire State Express, was purposely design and built for speed. The New York Central railroad had commissioned it to try to set the world speed record in advance of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which it was due to be exhibited at.

On the afternoon of May 9th, 1893 on the New York Central main line, just west of Batavia, it became the first man made vehicle to travel faster than 100 miles per hour when Batavian Charlie Hogan opened the throttle wide in an effort to make up time on the Rochester to Buffalo run.

Word spread quickly, and the following day the engine was returned to Syracuse, to pull another leg of the Express, this time with railroad officials, and reporters on board to record the speed. On the run from Syracuse to Rochester, and into Batavia, Hogan held the train back to 60 mph, waiting for the long flat,  straight section of track between Batavia and Corfu. When Hogan passed his home town, he opened it up. The train was clocked at 35 seconds to the mile as it reached Corfu, but it wasn’t done yet. Between Corfu and the little village of Crittenden the train reached 32 seconds to the mile, or 112.5 miles/hour.

Empire State Express 1893

The New York Central got the publicity that it had hoped for, and the engine was placed on display at the World’s Fair. It’s fame spread, and Engine 999 became synonymous with speed. When Henry Ford built a race car in 1902 to advertise his fledgling automotive company, he named it the 999. The engine served as the flagship passenger train of the NY Central for several years until replaced by other locomotives. It still served the railroad up until 1952 before it was removed from service and donated to the Museum of Science and Industry, on the grounds of the 1893 fair.

Engine 999 today

It remains there today. The tracks that the 999 ran on are still there, little changed in over 120 years. Drive west from Batavia on Route 33 and they parallel the road as flat and as straight as they have ever been. I’ve driven that stretch many times. I always enjoyed coming upon a train and trying to pass it. It’s strange to say, but 120 years after Engine 999 set the record, trains travel far slower. The fastest speed records for travel between New York and Chicago were set back in the 1930’s and 40’s, when the NY Central’s 20th Century Limited, and the Pennsylvania RR’s Broadway Limited would trade the record back and forth, making the run in less than 17 hours.

Times change, and technology wanes. Air travel brought about the end for intercity train travel in the U.S.  back in the 60’s. The Amtrak train from NYC to Chicago now takes 19 hours(only one hour less than it did in 1900) and the experience is not much better than riding a Greyhound bus. Romance has been sacrificed for convenience, and while we lament it’s passing, we still clamor for seats on Southwest Airlines cattle cars to save a buck.

But, here at 20 Prospect we still sit on the porch in the spring darkness, and listen for the sound of train whistles passing off to the south of town, carrying our imaginations away to a place far beyond the reach of airlines.

Chicago – Winter 1991

My Life as Reddy Kilowatt

The new year, 1991, found me in Chicago. Not the ritzy, glitzy, Michigan Avenue Chicago, but the industrial “hog butcher for the world”, Carl Sandburg, Chicago. I had been called down from the jobsite in Wisconsin, to fill in as a second engineer during a maintenance outage at the Crawford Generating Station down on Pulaski, in the Little Havana neighborhood of Chicago’s Southside. Our offices were out in Lisle, in the Western Suburbs, and most of the field engineers working in the district lived out that way. So when I arrived from Wisconsin, I checked into the Travelodge in Naperville to be close to the office, and near to my colleagues. It was about a one hour commute to and from the plant, but honestly, there was no way I had any intention of staying close to that neighborhood.

The Chicago District office, was one of the few that could support a steady crew of 3-4 field service engineers living and working in the area. The company had some long standing service agreements with the Commonwealth Edison company, and these engineers lived off of the regular maintenance outages, and performance improvement programs at their coal fired power plants. As a newby, I was only in town for a week to fill in as a second on a project. It was as much a part of my training, as it was a chance for the company to bill my time at the exorbitant rate of $850 / day. Now, nobody has a higher opinion of me than I do, and I could never quite accept the fact that I was worth $850 / day to anybody.

The Commonwealth Edison generating plants, being located in Chicago, were staffed with Union Labor. Now, my Dad worked 35 years in the Union, and I was not an unsympathetic to Union labor, but in my 20 years of work experience around the world, I have yet to encounter a lazier bunch of craftsman. I came to quickly understand that any task performed in a ComEd plant, took 3 times as long, and required twice as many people as necessary. It’s places like this that have given Unions their reputation as inefficient barriers to progress, and profitability.

Our work as service engineers was to take the plant engineering staff, up into the boilers to inspect them for wear and tear, and highlight items for the maintenance crews to fix. The plant engineering staff was full of nice, gregarious people, or every color of the diversity rainbow, that knew absolutely nothing about the equipment they worked on. As consultants, this was what we called job security. ComEd had to bring in outside engineering help to show them how to do their job, not that they had any particular interest in learning it. It became quickly apparent, that they too would find any excuse possible to stay in their heated, relatively clean, office, rather than don a set of coveralls and go crawling around in the flyash with us.

Working the outage there, was a test in patience. Despite knowing that we were being paid a ridiculous sum to perform the work, and that our customer had little incentive to see us complete the job, we still did our best to get the job done as quickly as possible. So after a couple of Styrofoam cups of coffee, we would put on our coveralls and hard hats, take up our clipboards and flashlights and head up onto the unit.

Going into the unit required us to have a “hole watch” to stand outside the access hatch, for safety reasons. Union rules required this person to be a member of Union maintenance staff. So the next half hour usually involved us roaming the maintenance department looking to find a supervisor, who could round up one of the maintenance staff. Once we had found our conscript we would head up to the section of the boiler that we were due to inspect.

A coal fired Utility Boiler is not a hot water heater like you have in your basement. It is a 20 story tall furnace, lined with 2” steel tubes that carry water and steam. Finding your way around one requires a map, and a fairly intimate knowledge of the complex mechanical system. The boiler and auxiliary equipment is supported, and surrounded by a superstructure of steel and catwalks. It is not a place to work if you do not like heights. It is also not a place to work if you are claustrophobic, as most of the access hatches for getting into the boiler as 20” x 20”, and require you to lay down and wiggle your way inside. Once into the darkness, you are usually laying on a bed of tubes covered either in rock hard pointy slag, or fine powdery flyash. No matter how tight you zip your coveralls, it will find a way down your neck.

Having to work at the glacial pace of the ComEd staff was excruciating. More often than not, when we arrived at our destination on the 15th floor, we would discover that the access hatch had not been opened. Our Union maintenance man would then have to return back to the shop to retrieve a wrench while we waited. So after about an hour and a half of standing around, we’d finally be able to begin our work. We’d climb into the unit in a team of 3, with our trusty “hole watch” standing outside, and hopefully, poking his head in from time to time, to make sure we were OK. Then would would pull out our paint sticks, and begin inspecting the tubes looking for signs of erosion, and thinning. With the rows of tubing running into the hundred, we had to number them, and write on the walls to keep track of what we found. Problem spots would be circled and surrounded with big arrows pointing at them, and we’d make a note in our clip board. We’d usually be able to get about 2 hours of work in before we had to break for lunch. After lunch the whole process would repeat itself.

I would like to say that I thought our work mattered, but looking at the condition of the plant, and the attitude of the employees it was clear it didn’t. Only the most pressing of maintenance issues were ever addressed. Not for a lack of resource, merely for a lack of will. Whenever I worked in a ComEd plant, I took extra care to watch where I stepped. The plants in general were pretty old, and the lack of care caused them to age a lot quicker. The unit’s we were working on at the time were Unit 7 & 8. They were the only two units in operation, and they had been built in the 50’s. Unit’s 1-6 dated back to the teens and twenties, and were long since decommissioned.

In later years, I would return to Crawford for a retrofit project, where I was working second shift. If I thought that time stood still during the day shift at Crawford, the crews working the evening shift required stop motion photography to see them move. The retrofit project required us to oversee the installation of a new emissions system. It did not require inspection, or climbing through arsenic ridden flyash. Instead I just paid periodic visits to the installation crew to see how they were coming on the project, and spent the rest of the time watching the hands on the clock. Being an engineer, and someone fascinated by history, curiosity eventually got the best of me and I began asking the plant staff about Units 1-6. While they had been decommissioned years before, the units had never been dis-assembled. Because of the environmental hazard, and all of the asbestos insulation, ComEd had just placed police tape and “Keep Out” signs across the walkways leading into the old part of the plant, and left everything as it was. So after discussing it with the plant engineers, one evening we decided to break the rules, and go exploring in the old plant. We donned our coveralls, and our respirators, took up our flashlights, and crossed the yellow line.

It was an Urban Explorers heaven in there. Lots of ancient industrial equipment, covered in dust to the angle of repose. As an engineer it was fascinating to see the history of technology frozen in time. Standing there at the tail end of the century, looking at 80 year old equipment that had been in operation when Edison was still alive gave me goosebumps. We spent hours in there, like little kids, “Hey, look at this!”, “Wow, look over here!”, “So that’s how they did it back then!”. It’s amazing just how far technology came in 100 years. From the first electric generating station, running on Victorian Era technology, to computerized control rooms, and today’s power plant equipment that looks like something out of Star Trek. (In fact, if you saw the new Star Trek movie, they used a Gas Turbine Combined Cycle power plant as the backdrop for the scene where the Enterprise is under construction)

One of the things that amazed me about those old generating stations was the amount of craftsmanship that was put into everything. The tile work, and brickwork throughout the plant was designed and built as if they were public spaces like a train station. At the ComEd plants, the hand rails around the turbine halls were reported to be solid brass. As the legend goes, the plant managers in the 40’s had them painted black, so that the government would not order them removed and melted down to serve the war effort. You don’t see that type of craftsmanship in today’s world of utilitarian industrial architecture.

I worked in many of these old plants during the early 90’s. In Chicago, Kansas City, Philadelphia, and other places. The economy was beginning to pull out of the Bush One era recession, and the country’s electricity needs kept these plants running. From the late 70’s until the late 90’s there was little new power plant construction, until the era of deregulation caused a boom. As newer, more efficient, gas turbine power plants came online, these old relics would eventually begin to be decommissioned as well. Some utilities, like Exel Energy in the Twin Cities, have torn down old plants, or re-powered them by piggy backing new generating units onto the existing transmission and distribution infrastructure. And so these early 20th century coal plants are slowly disappearing, or being left behind, undisturbed, to rust away. As an engineer, and a sentimentalist, I hate to see this industrial heritage being lost in our heading rush into the “knowledge economy”. These industrial plants were the engines that drove American industry to its mid century heights. While they may be old, inefficient and no longer economically, or environmentally sound, I wish that at least a few of them could be preserved as living, breathing museums of technology. Maybe the market no longer values them, but a growing population of engineers are starting to take an interest in preserving our technological past, as a reminder of what technology can, and can’t accomplish.

After a few hours of exploration, we decided that our jobs and our lives were no longer worth risking, and we made our way carefully back into the operational side of the generating station. But I’ve come to learn that there are others out there that still take these sort of risks, and more, to explore old industrial sites. They call themselves urban explorers, and while I cannot condone what they do, I must admit that I am fascinated by the photographs that they take, and post in online forums. Foolish and crazy though they are, some of their work is stunning.

For some terrific photographs of abandoned industrial sites, check out Kendall Anderson’s excellent photoblog here.